Acts of War

English hobbyists who role-play as soldiers

01 August, 2016

EVERY WEEKEND, thousands of people in England descend on empty fields, dressed as soldiers from the Second World War. They erect tents, dig trenches and wield period-appropriate weapons. Occasionally they recreate battles, but, for the most part, they focus on accurately setting up elaborate camps, complete with barracks, uniforms, rations and more.

For two years, starting in 2012, the American photographer Daniella Zalcman documented Second World War re-enactments across England. Her work culminated in Sunday Soldiers: a black-and-white photo series that features various types of images, including many striking portraits.Hailing from the US state of Maryland, where re-enactments of the American civil war are common, Zalcman was struck by the comparatively more personal tone of the events she attended across the Atlantic Ocean. “In America, the Civil War is near-ancient history,” she said. “But in the UK, many of the re-enactors I met carried something for a father or grandfather who had been in the war.” Even those who lacked personal connections to the war often had strong feelings about it. “For Brits in particular,” Zalcman said, “I think WW2 is a point of deep nationalistic pride”—which “definitely plays a role in why re-enactment is so popular in the UK.”

Individual re-enactors approached the hobby in different ways. Some, Zalcman said, would “spend the entire weekend in kit, eating and sleeping as the WW2 soldiers would have.” Others preferred to leave the main campsite at the end of the day, change into everyday clothes and eat fish and chips for dinner. Zalcman also frequently saw the participants “sniping at each other over the authenticity of every little element of kit, from the way buttons are polished to the type of stitching.” This, she said, was “both amazing and maddening to watch.”

Zalcman shot Sunday Soldiers on a twin-lens reflex camera that dates back to the Second World War—which often made her feel like a re-enactor herself. “I think that part of the way in which I’ve tried to connect with this community involves stepping into the past myself, and using technology appropriate to the era,” she said. “I actually prefer that these photos look like they might have been discovered in an attic somewhere, 75 years later.”